Part 1: Running from the Presence of God
When I was in High School I went through a stage of rebellion a couple of years after being a Christian. I was still actively reading my Bible daily. I was still going to church on my own accord (though my parents rightfully didn’t give me the choice). I was still seeking opportunities to speak to others about Christ and his gospel. However, there was one area that particularly stands out to me that saddens me. One area I had fought hard to justify. One area I knew I was running from God.
What was it you ask?
Music wasn’t the problem. I am not even drawing a line concerning so-called “Christian” and “secular” music. What made the music particularly wrong to listen to was that the artist sung about loving the things that God hates. The artist mocked, ridiculed, and belittled the things that God honored and valued. And I was choosing to entertain myself with it. Each time I would try to block out what the vocalist was singing about so that I could enjoy the catchy and engaging tune. But I knew I was wrong in listening to it. The Holy Spirit reminded me of it regularly. But I fought and labored to convince myself that it wasn’t wrong. However, the LORD chastises the ones He loves. And He would not let me remain in my rebellion even in the smallest areas of my life like what song I listened to on the way to work.
Can you relate? No I don’t mean particularly concerning music. I’m referring to the “running from God” part. Have you ever run from God? Are you running from God right now? In some ways it is a silly question right? Of course we can’t run from God. The psalmist says,
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
You get the idea right? There is absolutely nowhere you could go to escape God’s presence. And Yet we have this statement in Jonah 1:3 and 1:10:
But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
In what sense could Jonah, a prophet from Galilee, be “fleeing from the presence of the LORD?” Since God is present in all places and at all times, in what way is it possible for any of us to flee from God’s presence.
Well in the context, God had commanded Jonah to do one thing and he did precisely the opposite. So we see the writer equating obeying God to enjoying the presence of God and disobeying God is equating with running from God’s presence. Could it be that you are running from the very presence of the thing you claim is your ultimate joy and hope in life? When we disobey God, we are doing that very thing.
What could God possibly ask Jonah to do that would drive a prophet to such crystal clear rebellion? God sent him to preach behind enemy lines. Not just any enemies’ line. Assyria and more specifically that “great city Nineveh.” These were the very people who had oppressed Jonah and his people. Jonah loved and valued his country, his people, his comforts, more than he did the command of God and certainly more than he did some “wicked,” “violent,” pagans.
You see Jonah was given a unique calling to speak the truth in a foreign hostile land but all of us have been called to speak the truth to our neighbors. Allow me to ask the question again, “Have you been running from the presence of God?” We see that Jonah refuses to go and speak the message God has entrusted him with because he is indifferent to Nineveh’s impending judgment from God. Jonah’s silence and separation were his way running from God’s presence.
Sadly, Jonah’s behavior is ironically similar to what many Christians advocate today to be commendable. That may sound shocking as first glance. But I think for far too long, many Christians have been duped or deceived into thinking the most loving thing we can do is “be nice” to our neighbor and for the most part “mind our own business” in hopes that someday they may interrogate us with how they can be saved. After all they say, “Jesus says, ‘judge not that you be not judged.’” This is true, and it behooves us to understand what Jesus meant there being that that same Jesus in the same text tells his disciples, “Do not give to dogs what is holy…” or again later in that same sermon and chapter even, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” In fact, Jesus in that same book gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven to the church. In order that, they may bind and loosen on earth what is in heaven.
Even still many Christians have become far more concerned with offending their neighbor than they have been with speaking the truth in obedience to the command of God our Savior. And this is a great travesty. It is not Christian’s “niceness” that marks us apart. It is the message that marks us apart. And if we fail to bring attention to that main thing that separates us, then we will fail entirely. I have often heard that the reason they don’t share the gospel is because they think they will not receive the message yet. And they would hate for them to reject the message. But they fail to realize that if that is true then the rejection has already taken place in their hearts. Indeed, we already know this is the case with every man. It is not man’s heart that readies the effectiveness of the Word. But rather, God’s Word that readies the man’s heart. And if we withhold the Word, we withhold from our lost neighbor grace (On a side note, this is particularly instructive for parents parenting teenagers).
Jonah’s way of hating and judging the Ninevites was to remain silent. In fact, that was the most unloving thing Jonah could do. The principle remains true today saints. One of the ways we judge and hate people is by not warning them of the wrath to come. The reason why our silence in the face of such wickedness is really quite clear. Sin is opposed to God and so sin is destructive. And our silence in the face of such things displays our indifference. If a doctor were to withhold the sad information of cancer from a patient in hopes of not “ruining their day” or “their relationship” we would consider that doctor to be a monster. Saints, how can we remain silent in the face of such a horror as sin and their impending judgment of the eternal conscious suffering of the wrath of God? We must NOT be silent. Patient in our interactions? YES. Loving? YES. Gracious? YES. Kind? YES. But not silent.
Jonah’s silence was not just in the face of one person though. Jonah was silent in the face of a whole city and nation’s wickedness. A wickedness that had ascended to the heavens. A wickedness that had arisen to the throne room of God. This is the very reason God sent Jonah in the first place. Jonah 1:2 says, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” This reminds us that God is not only concerned about Israel. God is concerned about the nations. It is the nations which are to be His Son’s inheritance. And it is the nations which His Son shall receive. The teaching of Nineveh’s wickedness coming before God is not unique to Nineveh. God rewards all nations that would seek to honor and obey Him. And He judges all nations that rebel against His moral law. Proverbs 14:34 makes this clear, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Notice how indiscriminate the statement is, “a nation” and “any people.” Sweden, Brazil, Iran, America, Russia and China all fall under that category. And so it true today that if our nation pursues and lives out righteousness then God will exalt us nationally. But should we continue in unrepentant sin and wickedness, then it will be a reproach to us. We will be disgraced by God and an object of scorn and contempt. Therefore, our message must go not only to the individual but also to the nation. For the message pertains to both. And Christ Jesus has purchased both. And He shall inherit both.
Jonah was more concerned with his safety, comfort, and self than he was concerned with the command of God. Friend, can I ask you, “are you prophetically speaking the truth in love and warning others that God will judge, or are you more concerned about yourself and your comfort?” This is the question that has been haunting me this week. I read about Jonah and became disgusted with his lack of character and then Holy Spirit held the mirror of God’s Word in my face and I began to mourn over my own sin and rebellion. Scholar and Pastor James R. White points out a wonderful nugget of truth concerning this. He comments on the fact that if we are Christ’s then we are hidden with Him in God and are safe. Our eternity is secure. So then, what power over my life does the world have over us? White’s states only what power we render to it. For I can only give the world power over my life in as much as I love the things in the world. If we love our liberties or tax breaks or reputation or home or car more than God then we will inevitably surrender our allegiance to the world over God.
And so we see this is really an issue of loyalties. Jonah; when caught in a massive storm at sea that the LORD God had sent, claimed: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land.” But his life was saying otherwise. Jonah recognizes there is no escape from God and instructs the mariners to hurl him into the sea the same way God hurled the great wind upon the sea. I wonder where our loyalties lie in our life. Where do yours lie? Do you confess Jesus with your mouth while your heart is far from Him?
What is most staggering to me though in this story is at what lengths God pursues Jonah. He won’t let him go. He hounds Jonah until he returns to Him. Proverbs 3:11-12 state:
11 My son, do not despise the Lord‘s discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
Jonah is running as far as humanly possible from God and yet He as a loving Father still loves Jonah and so disciplines him. We are not to see the behavior of God in this story as punitive because of Jonah’s despicable behavior. We are to see the LORD’s behavior such as a loving father who takes his son into a room for instruction and discipline because he loves his son too much to let him go wild. Let’s be clear, Jonah has done NOTHING to earn this kind of love. His behavior has shamed God and insulted Him. Yet the steadfast love of the LORD endures forever. God’s Sovereign, Unfailing Love will not let Jonah go his way. This love that God has for His people is the same today. If you are like me, then you are feeling like your character more resembles that of Jonah than it does the sailors. But the good news is, God shows both of them grace! God’s love never gives up on us. Do you believe that friend? God will never leave you nor forsake you. God will pursue you and hound you and move the seas and the winds to bring you into His presence. God will do whatever it takes to make you more like His Son Jesus Christ.
That’s because Jesus Christ is the final prophet who also came from Galilee. He left His home in heaven and He did obey His Father’s orders to go into enemy territories and preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And His the response He received was not favorable in the least. No. In fact, He was despised and rejected by man. He was acquainted with sorrows. The punishment that brought us peace fell upon Him. That’s because the Father called Him not only to preach but to die in our place. He took all of our running from God and bore it on His shoulders while the Father punished those sins in Christ.
He did it, so that we could be forgiven. He did it, so that we could have life. He did it, so that we could enjoy the presence of the LORD. And He did it, so that we would call others to repentance and into the presence of the marvelous Light of the World, Jesus Christ!
“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” –Ps. 36:9